As many people know I’m a huge supporter of VMUGs – and I have been from a very early time. I forget exactly when I went to the VMUG in London – I guess it must have been around 2004/2005. I started off as jobbing instructor with the hope that I would learn more from the folks there, never realising that I to would end up presenting, and being on the Steering Committee for while. Over time that morphed into speaking at the large “User Conferences in the US. That started off as being an invite to speak at the North Carolina VMUG by their VMUG Leader, Charlie Gautreaux. I have Charlie, Jean Williams of VMware (The Godmother of all VMUGs!) and the Global VMUG for making that happen.
In away I see the last two years of so of doing these larger events as kind of apprenticeship for my new role at VMware. Sure, for most of my career I’ve stood up in front of groups and spoken. But that was always to relatively small groups of 10-12 people in a classroom. The dynamic is different – you bond with your group over the week, and some cases become friends with the people your with. That’s quite different from 300/400/500/600 people looking at you’re in an auditorium. I believe there’s an art to public speaking – just as there is to being a good instructor. I’d like to think my instructing years come in handy. After doing my stinting on the VMUG circuit I could joke in my job interviews that I was already VMware’s unpaid evangelist, and perhaps they should get around to paying me. That always made the interviewer laugh. Not too hard I hope… 😉
But anyway, the previous two paragraphs are merely a quick preface to establish my reputation which hopefully proceeds me (in a good way!). In this blog I want to share to some practical ideas/tips about running the VMUG that might help people involved, and in the process restate what I think should be the VMUG’s core value.
1. Single Track/Multi-Track. Do you hire one big room and a warm and happy group, or should you have a multi-track event with breakout sessions – affectively a mini VMworld right on your doorstep? I think multi-track is the way forward, but it obviously has to be qualified by the numbers you’re attracting to the event. It’s hard to have multi-track events when their isn’t the sponsorship to pay for the rooms, and the biggest number of attendees you attract is 10-30 people – although I think two breakout session with 15 people is totally reasonable (I like speaking to groups small or large) – a sponsor might see the dicing-and-slicing of attendees less favourably.
In the longer term the multi-track approach means you can offer so much more to your members than a single track. But I think you have to be “doing the numbers” for it work. It means you offer the membership choice of what they see and hear. It also opens the door to other styles of interaction being offered – such as birds-of-a-feather round tables – which for some reason are a bit of damp-squib at VMworld, but work wonderfully at a VMUG. The multi-track approach also opens up the possibility of 1-2-1 sessions with guest speakers, as well as hands-on-labs – assuming you can get a company to sponsor them. Most hands-on-labs mean remote access – that means internet access – and that means paying often exorbitant fees at venues. Going down the multi-track route can put more pressure on finances – and there you could run the risk that the event becomes more about the sponsors than the users – it need have to, but it something to be mindful about.
2. Encouraging Users/Members to Speak. Fundamentally, I think this is one of the biggest challenges of VMUG Leadership. After it’s a vmware USER groups isn’t. But it seems where ever I go the same story is retold, and in truth I saw it when I was more actively involved in leadership. There is an element of people sitting back and lapping up content – and I’ve occasionally heard some user bemoan that saw a ‘vendor sponsor-pitch’ – something I know ALL good VMUG leaders avoid at all costs. Keep it technical/educational we say, but you can’t always depend/guarantee that on the day itself. But to those users who occasionally carp or complain – I say this. Ask not what your VMUG can do for you, but what you can do for VMUG. If members want real content from real people – then its down to you to have the courage of their convictions and stand-up. Now, I know what people will say – believe me I’ve heard them all. My company would never allow me to speak about our environment is the usual refrain. Well, I’ve over 100 people speak on a my podcast the chinwag. Very few of them have asked permission from their company – because non of them ever felt the need to say who their worked for – even contractors/freelances – and that’s despite the fact that they don’t use a pseudonym or have their faces heavily pixilated.
I think one method of encouraging member presentations is this strategy. Tell them the user sessions are 30mins max (not the usual 45mins or in my case 1hr 20mins that should have been 45mins!). That’s 5mins to introduce themselves and their topic – and 5mins at the end for a QA (make sure you plant folks like me to ask questions at the end – when one person asks a question, others will follow). That means they only need to actually speak for about 15-20mins on their chosen topic. It doesn’t have to be a session which is like a keynote at convention with some big philosophical vision to impart. It could be one of your blogposts turned into a presentation (that’s how most of mine get started!). On the upside if you stink at presenting people only have to suffer for 30mins rather than an 1hr 20mins!
Finally, I’ve seen people really GROW through presenting. I’ve seen a number of folks at the VMUGs start off a little diffident about being in front of their peers. But after a while they get the buzz, and start to inspire others to follow suit. Don’t see the crowd as baying for your blood. The truth is any audience is praying for to be good – willing you on to do your best. It’s a bit like one of those TV Talent Shows. When someone comes on stage you’re praying them for them be good, because there’s nowt more embarrassing than someone who when they sing sounds like a bag of cats. I think some presenters are put off by the scrutiny that being under the spotlight brings. But that is all in the mind. The truth is the audience want you to do well (like a crowd of proud parents at school play!) and they will give you a LOT of wriggle room because you’re not yet another vendor trying to sell them something. Use That. Promote That. I think you’ll find you’ll go far. Making your audience laugh with few self-depreciating jokes appears to work wonders… 😉
3. Time to Adopt a Media Policy? In our increasingly connected world and public world – Everything is Online. That has some interesting implications and tensions. For example its great to have people blog or tweet about your event. It helps promote and disseminate information – it also extends the reach of the community beyond quarterly meetings into something that lives on after the event. But there are a couple of caveats. Are the professional media people coming to your events? Could they possibly report (unfavourably?) about a speaker? What if this happen just as one of your members (who after years of prevarication) was finally persuaded to step up to the plate. What if your running your first country-wide event, and you’ve paid for expensive video/audio recording – but someone one in the audience walks in with a camcorder.
I think it’s probably best to adopt a media policy before the situation arises, rather than retro-fitting one after the horse has proverbial bolted. I know few VMUGs that have a media policy, and those that do have opted for something that is actually more like a disclaimer – in effort not to block the community of bloggers that help the VMUG promote its events and often serve as source of independent speakers. By disclaimer I mean the speaker makes it clear before starting their presentation whether the content is intended for the public domain.
As for the speaker. I’ve said some pretty flavoursome and honest things at VMUGs – both as an independent and now as an employee. I’m lucky that I’m not the CTO of VMware because I’m pretty sure the mainstream media would have picked up on what I say. I can get away with this frankness because to the mainstream media I’m a pretty much a nobody. But given the fact that anyone could potentially record a session and put on youtube. It’s perhaps worth bearing that in mind… I dare say its a matter of time before I get caught out saying something I later will regret. But I think if/when that happens I will just take it on the chin – after all what choice do I have?
4. User Conference are coming to Europe. Were just starting to see the beginning of larger country-wide events in Europe. Last year the UK saw its second country-wide event, and Denmark have there’s at the end of the year. Last week I found myself in Milan for the Italy VMUG. If you’re not thinking about it already and working with the Global VMUG to put one together – I think you should. These country-wide events do give you the “pulling power” to attract the big name vRockstars such as Scott Lowe, Duncan Epping and Cormac Hogan – all who were at the event last week. The big events attract new attendees, and add a focal point to the year.
Oh, and another tip. Try if you can to separate your “keynote” room from your “solutions exchange”. The bleed-thru in noise can make it difficult for your keynote(s) speakers. That’s obviously additional expense/ask. What’s odd is lay out. Solution Exchange at the back, Keynote at the front doesn’t seem to work – too much ambient noise. As the keynote speaker gets louder so does the Solutions Exchange. But if the Solutions Exchange is horse-shoe affair with the exhibitors around the edge of the room it seems to produce less noise.
5. Community Tracks. It might seem a bit odd this idea but it does really work. One thing I’ve seen as VMUGs grow in size and scope you tend to find that vendors/sponsors can get more air time especially at these larger “User Conference” style events. One thing I really liked about last years UK conference was a dedicated “community” track was put together solely consisting of user presentations. No prizes for guessing where I spent all day. The setting up of a “community track” helped ring-fence and protect the event from being cannibalized by too much vendor event (and that includes VMware by the way!) and reminds everyone that a VMUG should be as much as about users sharing their experiences, as it is vendors explaining to use the benefits of their technologies.
Anyway, that’s it for me. I’ll end with a round-up of events that I will/hope to be speaking at this year – that’s if they VMUG Leaders let me… 😉
My goal is do a US event on month, followed by a EU event the next – with a UK/Ireland event slotted in every month or more likely when they come up. I want to show my face least once at every UK/Ireland event this year so far in my own region I’ve attended the London, Dublin – with Manchester and Newcastle due in April/June. At some stage I need to speak to my mates North-of-the-Border in Bonny, Bonny Scotland…
6th June – UK: North-East User Group (Newcastle)
13th June – Danish VMUG (Copenhagen)
July – TBA
25th-29th VMworld US (San Francisco)
16th Sept – TBA
15th-17th October – VMworld EU (Barcelona)
November – TBA
November – UK-Wide VMUG Event